Archive for the 'Book Clubs' Category

Mar 07 2010

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Writing and Obsession

Thinking today about the old chicken-or-the-egg question:  do we choose the stories we tell, or do the stories pick us out of the crowd, follow us home, demand our attention? I just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it reminded me afresh of how important it is for those of us who write to always be listening, as Stephen Dunn puts it, “with that other, inner ear.”  A student in a community college biology class, Skloot first saw the name HENRIETTA LACKS written on the board as part of a lecture on cell division.  HeLa cells, named after Henrietta, were the first cells to survive–and reproduce–for more than a few days within a lab environment, making possible everything from polio vaccines to cancer therapies to gene mapping.  But who was Henrietta Lacks? Skloot wanted to know.  “No one knows anything about her,” her instructor replied. “She was a black woman.”

That was the inciting incident.

“What does your character desire?” we often ask our writing students–or are asked, in turn, by those who read our own works in progress.  “What does this person want?  What is his or her obsession”

But an equally important question might be:  What is the writer’s obsession with the story he or she sets out to tell?  For if it’s less than an obsession–if it’s mere inclination or, god forbid, calculated choice–the deep, primal heartbeat that drives a book’s creation for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, cannot take meaningful root.

Sometimes when a book gets uniformly good reviews, the small, winged cynic on my shoulder begins to mutter and twitch.  “Can’t be that good,” it grumbles.  “Probably disappointing.”  Within minutes of beginning The Immortal Life, said cynic was reading as voraciously as I, captivated by the unlikely marriage of personal interest story–the emotionally impacting story of Lacks herself, which unfolds in step with the developing relationship between Skloot and Lacks’s living daughter–and the story of HeLa cells themselves: their discovery, their commercial development, their impact on modern medicine and, as a result, every person living today.  Technically speaking, what makes this book a lasting masterpiece is the skill with which Skloot is able to portray both the personal and the scientific, making each story equally engaging and, through that process, strengthening each.  One might argue that Skloot, who earned her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh and is a contributing editor at Popular Science, is uniquely suited to write this particular story, skilled as she is in both in the portrayal of human pathos and the analysis of scientific fact.  But Skloot’s interest in Lacks began long before she’d developed this particular skill set, and it lasted through long years of disappointment in which Lack’s descendants–burned by past experiences with both reporters and the medical establishment–refused to be interviewed.  It lasted through self-financed research trips, broken relationships, job changes, life changes.  Through it all, beneath it all, that primal heartbeat pumped out its question:  Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Thank goodness Rebecca Skloot never stopped listening.


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Feb 18 2010

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Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

This question, and others listed below, emerged from a discussion run by K C Culver, who leads the Literature Group at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The Literature Group consists of smart, witty, and well-read retired professionals, some of whom have participated in the group for more than ten years.  During the Group’s last six-week semester, they read Good Things I Wish You and Vinegar Hill, as well as poems based on myth, and discussed topics such as the challenges of writing (and reading) contemporary writing based on history and myth, how the music of the Schumanns and Brahms reflects their biographies, and how to distinguish a good book from a great book.

A bit about K C: she’s a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Miami. She earned her MA in English Literature from Auburn University, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of South Carolina.  Her poems have been published in several journals, including Peregrine and Gulf Stream Magazine, and are forthcoming in Word River.

1.  Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

I find it nearly impossible to write when I am unhappy, unsettled or ill at ease.  And loneliness, for me at least, is a form of unhappiness.  But what I do require is a fair amount of solitude.  To write well, I need to be alone in my house or in a public place (such as on a plane or in a coffee shop) where I feel that no one knows me or might interrupt me. I suppose I also require a certain amount of emotional solitude as well.  I could never last long around someone who was constantly asking, What are you thinking?

2.  Did your view of Clara or Brahms change after writing this book?

I started writing about Clara and Brahms in 1994, when I co-wrote a screenplay with Stewart O’Nan.  But I’ve loved Clara Schumann since I first learned about her in high school; I’ve read everything about her I could over the past thirty years.  Writing Good Things didn’t change what I believed so much as make visible, make tangible, the connections between men and women living today and the lives Clara and Brahms lived then.  I knew the story was relevant; I just didn’t know how relevant until I began to collage contemporary fiction with historical fact.  If you click on my home page, scroll down and then click on Author’s Statement, I go into this in detail.

What did change–unexpectedly–was my view of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck.  He is often portrayed as a tyrant (or worse), and while this is true in some ways, he was also a feminist–far more so than his daughter, despite what some revisionist historians suggest.  He was absolutely right about what the demands and duties of marriage and motherhood would do to her career as a composer, and I saw, while researching the book, how deeply and sincerely he mourned the loss of what she might have offered the world through composition.

3.  What made you decide to write the novel as collage, which is very difficult? Did you have models?

I had read Maureen Seaton’s memoir Sex Talks To Girls in manuscript, and I was impressed with how much forward momentum she could generate out of short chapters, some of them hardly a page.  But I didn’t so much as decide to write a collage novel as find myself writing one.  Two things happened to facilitate this.  The first was that I went out on a blind date–pretty much the one I describe in Good Things–and the fictional story that evolved began to harmonize with the historical pieces I’d already written.  The second was that I started to photograph my desk and then pull the images into the text as a way of carrying my research with me on my three and a half hour commute (by public transportation) from the town north of West Palm, where I live, to Coral Gables, where I teach.  Initially, I did this to jog my memory, but gradually I began to rely on the images themselves to tell pieces of the story.

4. We’re interested in the role of L. We were split about whether he represents the stability/happiness that she doesn’t really want or whether he’s a Brahms figure.  Can you speak more about it?

L– is the guy who would always be asking, What are you thinking? In other words, Robert Schumann.

5. Does it worry you to have imagined details about Schumanns’ lives?

No, because that’s what you do in fiction.  You make things up.  I was pleased that the metafictional structure of the book allowed me to publicize the best nonfiction book about Clara, which is Clara Schumann:  The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich.  As you may recall, my contemporary characters reference this book in their debates.

6.  How did the people in your life react to this semi-autobiographical novel?

In an upcoming blog, I am interviewing my mother on this very topic.  It’s a question I get a lot, because my writing style is deliberately intimate; I want you to believe, as Anne Sexton said, “It was all true when I wrote it.”  However, the people in my life know the difference between the generative facts I’ve plundered for my own devilish purposes and the fictional lives that result.  The line, for those who know me well, is always a very clear one.   I have never written about something that someone has asked me not to write about.  Incidentally, my ex-husband did the design for this web site.  Isn’t it gorgeous?

7. We noticed that the names Heidi and Hochmann appear in both novels—how do you choose and use names?

I tend to use and reuse names that were common in the area of Wisconsin where I grew up.  “Heidi” in Good Things was actually my daughter’s choice; I told her about the character and asked her to pick a German-sounding name, and she picked Heidi.

8. We’re also interested in the name Salome, which seems unusual for a strict Midwestern Catholic community.  Where did that name come from?

I actually knew of a Salome where I grew up, though we pronounced it to rhyme with “Shalom.”  I chose the name because I wanted something associated, ironically, with a temptress.  Poor Salome.

9.  We’d like to hear your thoughts on the scene where Mary Margaret and Salome think the babies are being reborn.  Is it a symbol of rebirth?  Old age?  Trauma?

It’s more a concrete enactment of this idea:  that the secrets we keep do come back to haunt us, will continue to haunt us until they are brought to light.

10. What do you imagine happens to Ellen and the kids after the novel ends?  Have you ever considered writing a sequel?

Vinegar Hill is the only novel I’ve written that inspires this question, which I get a lot.  I really don’t know what happens to Ellen and the kids, which is probably a good reason to write a sequel. However, for the time being at least, I keep getting distracted by other, more urgent projects.

11.  We’re interested in the difference between the two novels in terms of style—what are you more comfortable with?  Where do you see yourself going next?

Each novel I write tells its own unique story and, as such, demands its own unique structure.  The book I am working on now–at least for the moment–has no chapter divisions (yes, on purpose) to facilitate the linear thinking of my first person retrospective male narrator, though it does have brief pauses, represented on the page by asterisks.

manette-at-her-desk

Thanks for the questions!  I welcome question lists like these from classes and clubs everywhere.  Those of you in the Miami area interested in taking a class through OSHER, here’s the link:  www.miami.edu/olli

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Feb 01 2010

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A Controlled Pause: Thoughts on Dani Shapiro’s “Devotion”

First, a happy update: book club members in Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Hawaii, Florida, New York and Maine have requested a free signed hardback of Good Things.  Scroll down (or click on Book Clubs) for more details about this promotion, which will continue until we have one hundred requests.

Projects such as corresponding with book clubs require managing details, and though some claim that God is in the details, I always find myself racing around, yet getting nothing done, when I have lots of things–the domestic mashed up with the professional–clamoring for my attention.  Reading Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Devotion, was a controlled pause, a deep breath. If you feel as if you’re foundering under a thousand post-it sized to-dos, if you find your mind working like a hamster on a wheel, if you can’t be easy, be quiet, be still, the process of Dani’s own struggle to find a spiritual center and silence will completely engage you. “I was always racing,” she writes on the second page. “I couldn’t settle down. I mean, I was settled down–I was happily married, and then mother of an eight year old boy. But I often felt a tremendous sense of urgency, as if there was a whip at my back.”

Shapiro’s search for peace leads her to revisit the life-threatening illness of her son and to reconsider her mother’s death.  She immerses herself in yoga retreats and follows the sparked trail of coincidence. Along the way, she reconnects with the Orthodox Jewish teachings of her childhood. Yet, rather than providing herself–and her reader–with easy answers, the book unfolds, in short collage pieces, as a series of questions that reveal the beating heart of human nature. Why do things happen? Is there a reason for the way life unfolds? Shapiro writes about being “complicated with Judaism,” a phrase that has helped me understand my own relationship with Catholicism. I wrote about this relationship, and its gradual transformation, in my own memoir, Limbo, and though the experience of illness led me to different conclusions, I loved being witness to Shapiro’s own journey.

“My bookshelves were filled with books I had bought with every good intention,” Shapiro writes, “important books containing serious insights about how to live. Over the years, they remained unopened. Taking up space. What would happen if I opened the books? If I opened myself–as an adventurer, an explorer into the depths of every single day? What if–instead of fleeing–I were to continue to quiver in the darkness? It wasn’t so much that I was in search of answers. In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers. I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there.”

And so she does with eloquence and grace.

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